West Side Community Garden Transforms from Nauseating to Beautiful

By: Russell Stern

As a cool summer night wind blows and plants shine in the moonlight, dozens enter the West Side Community Garden, on 89th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. They are going to see a concert, a smooth jazz quartet with piano, bass and drums. As they stride through the garden, they marvel at the beautiful berry patches and roses.

When the garden was first founded, however, people wouldn’t even think of going near it.

In 1975, the site was a large vacant lot strewn with nauseating garbage and dilapidated and stripped cars. It was even known as “strip city” among locals at the time. Crime and theft were on the rise in New York City, with the number of murders increasing by over 1,000 in a span of ten years and the number of robberies increasing by over 60,000.

“The vacant lot was part of the West Side Urban Renewal Plan, which aimed to renew and rebuild urban slums, and the lot was filled with rubble from buildings that used to be here,” Jackie Bukowski, former president and current legal counsel to the Garden Board, stated in an interview. “The Upper West Side was really a slum at the time, and there was a huge amount of crime. There were a lot of youthful gangs.”

“Watch West Side Story, and you’ll get the idea,” she added with a laugh.

Originally, Bukowski and the garden’s founders, Jerry Kretchmer and Joe Wasserman, did not need permission from the City of New York to clear out the vacant lot, which took up the entire block between 89th and 90th Street, and half the block between Columbus and Amsterdam. With the help of other volunteers, they completely cleaned up the lot and planted tomatoes and beds of flowers and vegetables. Several years later, though, when they wanted to modernize the garden, they were forced to enter into negotiations with the City Community Planning Board. The city planned to sell the lot to private developers to construct a high-rise apartment building and attached townhouses. The negotiations led to the garden winning permanent status in the city in 1985, by merely one vote. However, the size of the garden was greatly reduced.

“We had to make negotiations with Community Board 7 for six years, and the city wanted us to lease a small piece of the garden land and have us pay money for it,” said Bukowski. “But we established ourselves as a nonprofit organization and in 1989, the city granted us a deed and we became the owners of the land. We were able to accomplish this because we had many people supporting us, and kept lobbying members of the City Council.”

Once they became the owners of the land, community garden members established the concept for the public flower park and amphitheater. Construction began in the fall of 1989, and in the summer of 1990, the new garden was finally ready. It became a prominent oasis where frequent performances, plays and musical festivals are held.

Two of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth and Julius Caesar, as well as music performances, have been held in the garden. James Winn, a pianist, and Rolf Schulte, a violinist, have played songs by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, and Richard Strauss.

“The fundraiser we had for our first event was very special,” Bukowski mentioned. “It was the Macbeth play. It was fabulous. That’s probably the best play the garden’s ever held. The actors were amazing.”

The West Side Community Garden transformed what had been a rat-infested, garbage-filled junkyard into one of the Upper West Side’s most popular public gardens. This summer alone, the garden has sponsored numerous events, including a spring tulip festival, a July 4th potluck dinner, several movie nights, and a production of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. And if Jackie Bukowski and her friends have their way, it will continue to thrive for decades to come.

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